Malcolm Chase, who has died aged 63, will be best remembered as the leading historian of Chartism. More than this, he was the foremost historian of all kinds of popular radicalism and labour movement activity in late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Britain, rescuing the reputation of agrarian radicalism and charting the development of early trade unionism as far back as the seventeenth century, a period into which labour historians seldom venture.
Growing up at Grays in Essex, Malcolm graduated with a BA in history from the University of York in 1978, moving to the University of Sussex where he completed a master’s degree in modern social history (1979), and then a D.Phil. (1984) under the supervision of J.F.C. Harrison, a labour historian and pioneer of history from below whose benign influence on Malcolm’s own work is readily apparent.
Malcolm’s career was spent at the University of Leeds. He began work in the Department of Continuing Education, becoming head of the School of Continuing Education in 2002. When to Malcolm’s great sadness, the school was closed, he subsequently moved to the School of History in 2002 and to a Chair in Social History in 2009, where he remained until shortly before his death.
His first book, based on his PhD thesis, was The People’s Farm: English Radical Agrarianism, 1775–1840 (Clarendon Press, 1988). In an obituary for Northern History, Josh Gibson notes that it offered ‘a reinterpretation of Thomas Spence and his followers, rescuing them and radical agrarianism from the great condescension of posterity’.
Other publications would follow, notably Early Trade Unionism: Fraternity, Skill, and the Politics of Labour (Ashgate, 2000) for the Society for the Study of Labour History’s book series Studies in Labour History, of which Malcolm would eventually become series editor. But it will be his work on Chartism for which Malcolm will be best remembered.
In Chartism: A New History (Manchester University Press, 2007), Malcolm Chase stepped back from decades of Chartist historiography that had focused on thematic approaches and interpretations of one or other aspect of this sprawling mid-nineteenth century political movement to produce an authoritative narrative account that managed to combine the knowledge and understanding resulting from a lifetime of scholarship with a very accessible story, illustrated by life stories and fascinating details that made the book a joy to read.
Malcolm also played an active part in the life of the history community. He filled several roles at the Society for the Study of Labour History and our journal Labour History Review, most recently as vice-president; he chaired the Social History Society; he served on the editorial boards of Cultural and Social History, the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, and Northern History; and he was a constant presence at conferences, notably at the annual Chartism Days where he was, in the words of Simon Hall and Rohan McWilliam, the ‘animating figure encouraging new research and discussion’.
In the wider world, Malcolm spoke at a vast number of local and family history events, at schools, colleges, museums and galleries. He appeared on BBC Television’s Who Do You Think You Are? family history series and in numerous other broadcasts. He was approachable, friendly, never once condescending to the many enthusiastic though less learned amateur historians he dealt with, and always helpful and supportive. So too as a teacher and academic supervisor.
Those of us privileged to hear him speak (and sing) on Chartist, and other matters, will miss his generous spirit. We offer our sincerest condolences to Shirley and family.
Obituaries and tributes
Malcolm Chase: Appreciations, by Jamie Bronstein, John Belchem, Katrina Navickas, Tom Scriven (Labour History Review, 85:3, 2020)
Malcolm Chase (1957-2020), by Fabrice Bensimon and Rohan McWilliam (History Workshop Journal, 92 2021)
Malcolm Chase, 1957-2020, by Josh Gibson (Northern History, 58:2, 2021)
Malcolm Chase obituary, by Simon Hall and Rohan McWilliam (The Guardian, 23 March 2020)
Malcolm Chase, by Henry Irving (Social History Society, 3 March 2020)
Emeritus Professor Malcolm Chase (University of Leeds)